“When you change the way that you see things, the things that you see change.”
Kwame Anku, co-founder of the Black Angel Tech Fund, opened his keynote at Black Wall Street Homecoming 2017 with a plea for those in the audience to take hold of their tools and create a paradigm shift in black entrepreneurship.
His message to the captive audience in Bay 7 on the American Tobacco Campus was simple and clear; we have the brains, we have the numbers, we have the hustle and we have faith—so let’s change the world. Let’s make a black Zuckerberg or Thiel or Musk. Money is power and black power will solve the issues of black America.
He challenged the audience to reexamine things as integral to black identity as the raised fist of black power. The bare, empty fist of resistance no longer encapsulates the struggle of black people in America according to Anku, a serial entrepreneur, public speaker and investor who founded the Sacramento-based angel network with fellow black Stanford grads to invest in and mentor black entrepreneurs.
Instead, let’s put a phone in that hand, he says. Let’s change the symbol, and ultimately the movement. The world is interconnected now—we can reach out, we can learn and we can connect all with the power of technology.
If Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X were alive to see the access black people in America have to networking, information and potential—he argued—they would be “crying in the corner of the room.”
I asked him about this after the event. He admitted it was subversive and could be offensive, but he stuck to his guns. Black people have more access to communication, mentorship and networking than they’ve had in history, he said, so why are we not communicating better, finding advisors to lead us on our journey and using the network to find capital to grow and ultimately change the country and world to be a better place for black people?
When asked to distill the message of BWS Homecoming, he replied it was all about learning who to ask for help and how.
An “18-year-old black kid at Duke asked for advice” from him after his panel. His advice was to go home, find alumni groups and start making friends and advisors. There are people out there who want that “little brother at college” who they believe in and want to propel upwards.
The same message of hope, hustle, empowerment and, most importantly, togetherness came to represent the proceeding events of the day and ultimately the conference as a whole.
Starting off with a 9 a.m. fireside chat with entrepreneur and philanthropist Christal Jackson, day two embodied this theme of togetherness and openness. While sparsely attended (which the moderator attributed to too much partying the night before), the conversation was surprisingly open and conversational.
The tone continued throughout the more well-attended panels where Q&A sessions often stole the show from the planned presentations.
There was never a panel with fewer than five long-form questions, and the panelists and speakers didn’t shy away from questions baiting them into a long answer.
One memorable moment happened when a woman in the crowd during the Influencer Marketing panel called out a prominent investment company in attendance for not offering her a loan despite deals with large name international companies.
Instead of the four panelists shying away from a touchy topic, they each engaged her in constructive dialog with the aim of helping her find funds and explaining why she might have been denied previously.
Panels focused so heavily on engagement with the audience stood in stark contrast to larger, more sanitized conferences on entrepreneurship where audience engagement is more a passing thought than central concept.
Conversations were grounded and practical, favoring facts and figures instead of “how-to” platitudes. At the ABCs of Funding, Asha Collins of Pipeline Angels gave a step-by-step guide on how to communicate with angel investors and what to know before approaching one, including the proper language to use and cash amounts to expect.
Even Detroit rap legend, Eminem-confidant and co-conspirator Royce da 5’9″ (pictured in the background of Eminem’s controversial BET cypher aimed at Donald Trump) was open about the importance of his failures and how he learned to ask for help.
Black people learning how to find, uplift and work with other black people was the central but unstated theme of the conference, and the same spirit carried on to the afterparty.
Early in the block party—held in the alley beside Alley 26—I approached Anku to ask him to explain a few things about his talk. There was a gentleman chatting with him whose conversation I interrupted. When I walked by Anku again an hour later, he was still talking to the same man.
One thing the Influencer Marketing panel harped on continuously was to not be bogged down by arbitrary goals and metrics. What matters in social media is post engagement—comments and shares—not necessarily the number of likes.
The same could be said of BWS Homecoming 2017.
While it may have been a smaller affair than other conferences in the Triangle, that doesn’t mean much. What matters is the conversation, the networking and the movement.